Close to one hundred people gathered at the Centre Culturel Georges Vanier earlier this month to eat vegan strawberry pie and learn ancient African farming techniques.
When she said “cric” the audience said “crack.” In Caribbean tradition that call and response signals the start of the enactment of an old African folktale in which the performers incorporate the audience into the act.
In town to promote her new book Farming While Black: African Diasporic Wisdom Uprooting Racism, that’s how American author of Haitian heritage, Leah Penniman, indicated that she didn’t intend on lecturing the audience that evening, but on sharing her (and her ancestor’s) story with farming and expected her mostly Canadian audience of African descent to share theirs.
The public school educator for over 17 years spoke of how she discovered her love of farming. She shared ancient African agricultural practices, and gave insights on the relationship Black and Brown people have had with cultivating the earth throughout history, emphasizing the violent relationship between farming and African Americans, a relationship she says she is working to mend.
“Too many times I’ve heard Black people don’t want to farm,” says Penniman. “But we do. We need that relationship with the earth, but the reason it’s been hard for us is because there has been trauma, inherited in our DNA, such as slavery and sharecropping, and lynchings. For all of these phenomena the land was the scene of the crime, but it was never the criminal, so many of us have confused the oppression that took place on land, and named the land an oppressor.”
She explained that like many people of African heritage living in North America, her family had escaped the tradition of cultivating the land, a tradition she discovered by happenstance was her passion because as a student she needed a part-time job.
“Like so many Black folks you get as far away as you can from what you perceive as an oppression on land,” says Penniman. “My grandparents would have never anticipated that I would have gotten a job as a teenager on this urban farm, but it was really transformative for me.”
At a time in life where there is so much uncertainty around identity and belonging, the elegant simplicity of seed to harvest and helping the community was the antidote to that confusion. I feel in love with farming.”
But not long after discovering her passion, she started questioning it as she attempted to transition from working on urban farms to rural ones. “It was a very, very white world,” says Penniman. “And there were a lot of micro aggressions, and just a lot of problems. In my late teens I was in a little crisis of faith with whether I should continue farming and whether that would make me a traitor to my people. Luckily, I had one elder Black farmer in my life that was like, nah, this is our destiny. This is our right. Don’t give up.”
According to her book, due to discrimination and violence African-American farmers have gone from 14 per cent of all growers in the United Sates in 1920 to less than 2 per cent today, with a corresponding loss of over 14 million acres.
“Its structural racism,” says Penniman. “There are so many blocks along the way to Black folks gaining ownership of anything whether it be land or companies.”
“If you look at redlining and housing discrimination, the GI Bill and who got the homeownership loans after WWII, there’re a bunch of things that we clump together in this term (of while affirmative action). These laws that have benefited white people at the expense of people of color. The Chinese exclusion act, there’s just a lot.”
“We haven’t been taught this stuff in school,” says Liang Cheng, who operates Young Roots Farms, an educational farm and summer camps for kids. “The thing that I took away the most tonight is how much research she’s done on this alternative history.”
“I know you guys know how to farm, when are you going to start the farm for the people?” Penniman recalls a neighbor saying to her over 10 years ago when she lived in the south-end of Albany, New York. At the time the educator, her husband, and their two small children resided in what she calls a “food apartheid neighborhood, meaning a place where a zip code determines your health.”
Penniman was already a member of the Black and Brown land sovereignty movement.
For the last 20 years she’s been collaborating with farmers, not only in the US, but Ghana, Haiti and Mexico,
As she explains: “redesign the food system so the DNA is not stolen land and exploited labor, but that the DNA is actually something wholesome that is about a right relationship with land and community.”
The author says that Black communities in the United States suffer disproportionately from illnesses related to lack of access to fresh food and healthy natural ecosystems.
“There were no Supermarket, no farmers market, no community garden, no public transportation and I didn’t have a car,” says Penniman.
She would have to travel up to 3.5 kilometres up a hill to have access to fresh vegetables at a farm that required its customers to purchase a membership to buy produce. And remembers that after filling up her baby-stroller with enough food for her family, the total came up to as much as that months’ rent.
Those circumstances, and the encouragement she was getting from more and more neighbours, are what inspired her to open her own farm, and to dedicate her life to what she calls the “elegant simplicity of seed to harvest and helping the community.”
She holds a B.A in Environmental Biology and International Development, and a Master’s in Science Education,
Today, she is co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, an 80-acre spread of which five are used to farm. It provides vegetables, tubers, herbs, fruits, chickens and eggs, along with pasteurized meats to close to 400 people every week.
Inspired by the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program, most of it is donated to individuals in need, something that’s done by functioning on a sliding scale; people pay for their produce based on what they can afford.
“It’s the idea of putting your radical political activism in tangible service to the community,” says Penniman. “It’s very important to us that the work be grounded in something real and something physical that the community needs.”
The farm, which started out with just Penniman and her family now employs over a dozen activist-farmers. The estate not only grows food for its community, but also trains the next generation of Black and Latina farmers in order for them to feed theirs.
It offers classes in food justice training for youth, sustainable farming training for people of color, and strategic development support for grassroots activists.
With her book, the author says her aim is to remind Black and Latina people that they don’t have to be the enemies of the planet. “Our African cosmology and the source of all wisdom is Earth,” she says. “She is a living being, she demands reciprocity, respect and consent. You need to ask permission. You can’t just do whatever you want on Earth.”
The vegan strawberry pie was provided by Midnight Kitchen, which organized the event in collaboration with Qpirq Concordia, Qrip Mcgill, Racines Bookstore, le Frigo Vert and Jardins de la Résistance.